All In Your Head: Relieving Head Pains

It’s an hour to deadline, and you’ve been staring at a computer screen for hours after a bad night’s sleep. You haven’t eaten all day and that familiar pounding is starting up in the front of your skull. What do you do when aspirin isn’t an option? Don’t stress out! You’ll give yourself a headache.

Those with persistent head pain should seek the help of a healthcare provider. But if you suffer from occasional headaches or have a doctor’s okay, here are some natural alternatives so you can rest your pretty, little head.

Take a Look Around
Many headaches stem from environmental factors that can be avoided. Sometimes, something as little as bright lights, loud noises and particular odors trigger headaches, while certain foods (like aged cheeses, chocolate, dairy, meats containing nitrates, citrus or fermented foods) and alcohol could, too (1).

Caffeine headaches are caused by a coffee or tea dependency, which emerge when a daily dose of caffeine is missed. However, too much caffeine could have the same painful effect. Keeping a consistent diet while avoiding skipped meals and excessive caffeine could be an easy solution to chronic head pain, along with staying away from cigarette smoke (1).

Head in a Vice
While this is good advice, sometimes it’s not so easy to get rid of head pain. Tension headaches are the most common kind of head pain; they are often caused by tight neck, jaw or shoulder muscles, stress and anxiety, teeth grinding, overworking and poor sleeping positions (2).

Head pain doesn’t always stay contained to the noggin. Any migraine sufferer can attest to the all-over debilitating feeling one gets when having a migraine attack. Symptoms include throbbing pain often on one side of the head, pain in the temples, nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, fatigue, vision problems and sensitivity to light, noise or movement (1). Even after the attack has faded, which can take anywhere from four to 72 hours, you’re often left feeling drained and disoriented.

Although migraines are in a different ballgame than headaches, the triggers are largely the same. The cause of migraines is still unsure, but some researchers believe head pain may be caused by changes in blood flow to the brain (2). Women are three times more likely to have chronic migraines than men, and heredity may also play a role. Other risk factors include being younger than 40 and taking birth control pills  (1).

Herbal Aids
Although we’re not advocating the use of aspirin, white willow bark contains salicin that was used to help develop aspirin in the 1800s. As far back as 400 BC, salicin has often been used to help relieve pain and inflammation, but the bark itself is thought to have antioxidant, antiseptic and immune-boosting properties and is also used for easing lower back pain, osteoporosis, menstrual cramps and fever (3). People who are allergic to aspirin or have asthma, diabetes, gout, gastritis, hemophilia or stomach ulcers and children under the age of 16 should avoid willow bark because of its aspirin-like qualities (3).

The leaves, stem and flowers of the passionflower are used as a calming herb to help cut down on anxiety, depression and insomnia. Scientists believe the herb makes you feel more relaxed by increasing levels of chemicals called gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain, causing brain cell activity to lower and the body to relax (4). Passionflower is often combined with other relaxation herbs, like valerian and lemon balm, which may also have positive effects on headaches (4). If you are taking sedatives, blood thinners or certain antidepressants, it may be best to avoid passionflower as it could make sedatives and MAO inhibitors stronger and blood thinners weaker (4).

Other traditional herbs include butterbur and feverfew. Their extracts are used to reduce head pain, as studies suggest they help reduce the duration and frequency of recurring migraines (1). Pregnant or breastfeeding women should avoid butterbur and feverfew, along with those who are taking blood thinners.

Non-Herbal Aids
There are also some non-herbal solutions to head pain. 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is an amino acid made inside the body from trytophan, which is then converted into serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates feelings of happiness and well-being. 5-HTP, researchers believe, reduces the intensity and frequency of migraines by regulating blood vessels with abnormal levels of serotonin, a possible reason why migraines occur in some cases (1). 5-HTP should not be combined with anti-depressants.

An up-and-comer for head pain care is vitamin B-12/riboflavin, which is said to reduce the frequency and duration of migraines (1). Migraine sufferers often have lower levels of magnesium. In one study, participants who took magnesium had their recurring migraines reduced by 41.6% (1). Magnesium is recommended for women who have migraines triggered by their menstrual cycles, and side effects include possible lower blood pressure and diarrhea. WF

1. University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC), “Migraine Headache,”, accessed Jan. 26, 2012.
2. Medline Plus, “Headache,”, accessed Jan. 26, 2012.
3. UMMC, “Willow Bark,”, accessed Jan. 26, 2012.
4. UMMC, “Passionflower,”, accessed Jan. 26, 2012.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, March 2012